JERUSALEM, Mar 23 – Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak faces a key showdown on Tuesday when he asks his fractious centre-left Labour party to back his move to join a government led by hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu.
The move threatens to split Labour down the middle after the once-dominant party suffered its worst-ever election showing on February 10, becoming Israel’s fourth largest party.
Representatives of Labour and the Likud party of Netanyahu, popularly known as "Bibi", began talks on Monday in a bid to agree a deal before Labour’s central committee convenes on Tuesday to vote in what may be a stormy meeting.
Barak’s decision to engage in coalition talks with Netanyahu roused fury in more than half of Labour’s 13 MPs who called for going into opposition in the wake of the election upset.
In a stark about-face from previous declarations, Barak last week argued that joining a Likud-led government — where the former premier was likely to remain as defence minister — was in Israel’s interests.
"The security, political, financial and social challenges the country faces require Labour to seriously consider" Netanyahu’s invitation, Barak’s office quoted him as saying.
"The majority of Israel’s citizens and Labour voters want to see the party take part in the country’s leadership," said Barak, himself a former premier.
But many in the veteran party oppose joining forces with Netanyahu and claim that Barak simply wants to keep the defence portfolio rather than languish in opposition.
Joining Netanyahu "will be catastrophic for the party and risks destroying it," Labour secretary general Eitan Cabel warned on Monday.
Seven Labour MPs opposed to joining a Likud-led coalition wrote to Netanyahu on Monday saying that the negotiations "are unauthorised and invalid… this is a blatant violation of Labour’s constitution."
The seven — who include Cabel and former party chairman Amir Peretz — threatened not to toe the party line if Labour’s central committee votes to join Netanyahu’s government.
They warned that "given the severity of the situation, we feel obliged to inform you that you would not be able to count on our support for any understandings reached between the teams."
The prime minister designate has wooed Labour in recent weeks, hoping to secure a comfortable majority in the 120-member parliament without relying solely on the most radical right-wing religious parties.
Netanyahu, who has until April 3 to form a government, has already signed coalition agreements with the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party and the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.
His current coalition agreements mean Netanyahu has the support of 53 MPs — 27 from Likud, 15 from Yisrael Beitenu and 11 from Shas.
If Labour votes to join him, he would have a four-member coalition of 66 deputies.